Rhodes playing at Pro Bowl level?

Xavier Rhodes is tied for third in the NFL with 14 passes defensed and doesn’t have many quarterbacks attacking him these days.

In a season when the Vikings have faced some of the top receivers in the NFL, including Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Rob Gronkowski, Sammy Watkins, Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Kelvin Benjamin and Percy Harvin, there has been plenty of Pro Bowl talents on the schedule.

But if you ask cornerback Xavier Rhodes, there’s no question as to who the toughest challenge is.

“It’s Megatron,” Rhodes said.

When you’re big enough of a star that you have a cool nickname like Calvin Johnson does, you get the respect of every player you go up against. Rhodes didn’t hesitate for an instant when it came to naming the most daunting challenge he will face this season, because Johnson can do so many things well and has such a unique blend of size, strength, speed, hands and leaping ability.

Trying to stop a player with such a lethal combination of skills isn’t easy, but Rhodes and the Vikings have a plan.

“The key is that he’s a deep threat,” Rhodes said. “He’s going to go deep each and every play. The key is eliminating him from making big plays. He attacks the ball when it’s in the air,” Rhodes said. “He uses his ability and his strength to get physical.”

Countering that physicality won’t be easy. In the last two meetings between the Vikings and Lions at Ford Field, Johnson has lived up to the Megatron monicker – catching 19 passes for 315 yards and three touchdowns. Reversing those numbers won’t be easy, but Rhodes’ confidence is at an all-time high and he’s ready for whatever Megatron has to offer.

“I like every challenge each and every week,” Rhodes said. “I’m going to play my game no matter who lines up. My thing is to be on him in tight coverage each and every play.”

Rhodes has improved his play this season to the point that he is being mentioned as a potential Viking to end his season in the Pro Bowl. Rhodes came to the Vikings with high expectations and has not only lived up to them, he has begun exceeding them.

Rhodes hasn’t punched his ticket there yet, but he likes being in the mix of the discussion.

“It’s a possibility,” Rhodes said. “If I keep playing the way I’m playing, I might be there.”

He is tied for the third in the NFL with 14 passes defensed and has one interception.

Asked if he thought that his ascent up the charts among cornerbacks has come as a surprise to him, he admitted it was because he didn’t have the confidence level he has now when the season began. When did the change occur?

“Not at the beginning of the year,” Rhodes said. “At the beginning of the year, it was just me trying to get better each and every week and learn the scheme with this new defense we have and just get better. It so happened I’ve been getting better each and every week and it’s Pro Bowl hopes now.”

Now he is reaching the rarified air that the top cornerbacks get – being referred to as a shutdown corner that offensive coordinators should avoid, not attack.

Rhodes doesn’t have the professional track record to justify being given that tag, but he doesn’t have a problem if that phrase gets thrown his way.

“I’m alright with that,” Rhodes said. “Any corner would be good with that. If I keep playing the way I’m playing, I’ll get everything – every name in the book they’ll give me.”

When Rhodes was building a reputation that would eventually result in him becoming a first-round draft pick in 2013, he dreamed of going up against the elite receivers like Johnson, but in his two NFL seasons he has discovered that there are great receivers throughout the NFL. Megatron has separated himself from the majority of them, but there are no weeks off in the NFL when it comes to shutting down wide receivers with big-play skill sets.

“When I was in college, I just wanted to come to the NFL and cover each and every receiver,” Rhodes said. “There are great receivers everywhere. Every team has a great receiver. In the NFL, there’s going to be a different receiver you face – every receiver in the NFL was a big name in college. Going against those guys, I’ve got to bring my A game every week.”

In two seasons, Rhodes has lived up to the lofty expectations the Vikings had for him. A lot of young players set a series of goals for themselves and look to exceed them. Rhodes isn’t one of those guys. His mindset isn’t on putting expectations in front of him, other than working at his craft to become the guy offenses look to avoid rather than challenge.

If that’s the expectation, he’s grading out well in that regard and doesn’t need to associate numbers with his success.

“My goal is simple,” Rhodes said. “I don’t want to go out and be crazy with (setting) goals. My goal is just be the best player I can be and do my job. If I do that, everything will fall in place.”

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